In China, the azalea is referred to as the “thinking-of-home bush.” Likewise, any good Southerner would be hard-pressed to subdue a longing for home at the sight of an azalea shrub’s springtime burst. But Mobile has a particular fondness for the plant, so much so that it once lined our busiest thoroughfares and inspired thousands of tourists to visit, just to see if those azaleas down in Mobile were as dazzling as everyone said.
To understand Mobile, it’s important to understand the azalea. A city so in love with its past finds the friendly bloom irresistible; it’s a living, direct connection to French Mobile, having entered our port straight from gardens in Toulouse. Buildings have crumbled and flags have changed, but through it all, the azalea remains.
THE BASICS Belonging to the genus Rhododendron, the azalea bush is an attractive flowering shrub that thrives in well-drained, acidic soil. Due to centuries of selective breeding, there exist several thousand varieties of the plant. Though first cultivated in Asia, the azalea’s name comes from the Greek word “azaleos, ” which means “dry, ” likely referring to the shrub’s fondness for light, well-draining soil.
WHY MOBILE? With early ancestors in China, azaleas particularly thrive in Mobile, where rainfall is abundant and the ground rarely freezes. Before hybrid varieties were created to withstand northern temperatures, Mobile was a national azalea destination.
FLOWERS ARE FRIENDS, NOT FOOD All parts of an azalea are toxic, but nectar from the flowers is the most poisonous. If an animal ingests only .02 percent of it’s body weight, grayanotoxins within the azalea can cause symptoms such as drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, abnormal heart rate, depression, tremors and seizures. Don’t panic; kids will inevitably put azalea flowers or leaves in their mouths, generally resulting in mouth irritation and nausea. That being said, Poison Control is just a phone call away: 800-222-1222.
CUE THE MARVIN GAYE An azalea flower contains male and female reproductive structures. With the help of bees and insects, pollination occurs when pollen from the stamen of one flower (the short filaments) is carried to the stigma of another (the long, single filament).
Our history in Azaleas
- In 1754, during Mobile’s French colonial years, Fifise Langlois returned to Mobile after a visit to his hometown of Toulouse, France. He brought with him azaleas from his father’s garden. The plants spread throughout Mobile almost as quickly as their reputation; when France handed Mobile over to the English in 1763, British visitors traveled to Mobile to admire the popular blooms.
- In 1929, businessman Sam Lackland spearheaded an effort to encourage Mobilians to grow azaleas along local streets. The resulting Azalea Trail was a Mobile phenomenon, boosting the city’s tourism in the 1930s and ’40s and inspiring parades and celebrity visits. Today’s Azalea Trail Run follows the remnants of that flower-lined path, and the colorful Azalea Trail Maids (once hostesses for Mobile’s tourists) serve as ambassadors of the city at local and national events.
- Some ancient azalea plants from the 18th century have grown so enormous that they resemble trees more so than shrubs. According to Tom McGehee, director of Bellingrath Museum Home, Mrs. Bellingrath bought several old azaleas around Mobile to be transplanted at her riverside estate. Although Hurricane Frederic caused significant damage to the old azaleas, McGehee says their descendants still thrive on the grounds.
- Throughout the centuries, azaleas have taken on various symbols of cultural significance. In Asia, the shrub represents elegance and femininity; in the UK, it stands for temperance; and because of its aforementioned toxicity, an azalea delivered in a black vase was once considered a death threat!
- Need further proof that Mobilians love azaleas? According to an employee at Flowerwood Nursery on Dauphin Island Parkway, the azalea is consistently their best seller. “We sell azaleas at an absolutely phenomenal rate, ” he says.